[Column] Most people are in the center facing the left

Posted on : 2020-08-27 17:12 KST Modified on : 2020-08-27 17:12 KST
The UFP’s recent changes highlight the need for the Democratic Party to rebuild its image
Kim Chong-in, interim leader of the United Future Party, kneels before a memorial for victims of the Gwangju Democratization Movement at the May 18th National Cemetery in Gwangju on Aug. 19. (Yonhap News)
Kim Chong-in, interim leader of the United Future Party, kneels before a memorial for victims of the Gwangju Democratization Movement at the May 18th National Cemetery in Gwangju on Aug. 19. (Yonhap News)

When I saw Kim Chong-in, interim leader of the United Future Party (UFP), kneel down to apologize at the May 18th National Cemetery in Gwangju not long ago, I found myself thinking, “Is this guy still thinking about a presidential run?” He’d thrown his hat in the ring back in 2017, after all, though he bowed out a week later. Seeing an 80-year-old man doing that to his aging body made me wonder if he had something up his sleeve.

In fact, Kim’s staged apology at the cemetery hadn’t been thought out very well. In several respects, it was a cheap rip-off of former German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s genuflection in December 1970 at a memorial to Jews who died in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Brandt hadn’t planned on kneeling; Kim’s genuflection seemed more staged

Brandt hadn’t originally planned to get down on his knees. “I felt that bowing my head wouldn’t be enough,” he later said. Kneeling down was a momentary impulse, but he’d long prepared for historical reconciliation. Two years and nine months prior to that, in March 1968, Brandt offered an olive branch to Poland with his announcement that West Germany would accept the Oder-Neisse Line, the border with Poland drawn after Germany’s defeat in World War II. A year earlier, he’d written out the letter containing his proposal for Warsaw. Brandt’s genuflection, therefore, was not the beginning of reconciliation, but its culmination.

Kim’s genuflection was a kind of performance that he’d discussed with party officials prior to the event. There was little evidence of thorough preparation at the party level. Considering that Kim had earlier visited the cemetery to make an apology when he was serving as the interim head of the Democratic Party four years back, it’s no wonder he’s come under fire for making too many apologies. Furthermore, Kim’s participation in a state security committee that assisted the rule of Chun Doo-hwan following his coup d’état renders him unfit to make such an apology. If anything, critics may be justified when they say that Kim was just looking for personal absolution for his own wrongdoing.

Even so, the genuflection shows that the conservative UFP, long under the sway of reactionaries and the far-right, is inching leftward, toward the center. Another example is the party’s inclusion of “carrying on the spirit of the Gwangju Uprising” in its new party platform. That’s not enough to demonstrate the party’s sincerity about the Gwangju massacre, but at least it’s a start.

UFP makes moves toward center

The UFP has recently made some notable centrist moves and nods to the left. It’s added basic income to the top of its policy platform and is pushing to lower the voting age to 18. Such changes would have been unimaginable under former party leader Hwang Kyo-ahn. The UFP has even taken the initiative on issues such as passing a fourth revised supplementary budget and issuing a second round of emergency disaster relief payments on a selective basis. Although the party was tripped up by hardcore conservative protesters of the likes of pastor Jeon Kwang-hoon, the latest controversy may give the party an opportunity to cut ties with its self-destructive fringe.

Brandt once famously said that most people are in the center, facing left. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder brought up this remark in his autobiography while expressing his fascination with Brandt’s keen ability of reading political trends. Brandt’s remark encapsulates politics as he envisioned it. It evokes an image of the majority of citizens standing not at the poles but in the center, casting a sympathetic eye on those in penury and pain.

Brandt’s comments are meaningful not so much in terms of specific ideologies or policies but rather as a political attitude toward viewing the situation. The UFP’s attempted reinvention of itself would appear to be linked to this political attitude. In that sense, the duo of Kim Chong-in and Joo Ho-young is far stronger than Hwang Kyo-ahn’s leadership team. If no one else emerges from the party who can properly read current trends, Kim Chong-in may just be able to set the party’s course.


UFP’s transformation stands in contrast with Democratic Party’s regression

The UFP’s transformation provides a dramatic contrast with the recent behavior of the Democratic Party. These days, the party seems to be sitting on its laurels, an impression reinforced by the lack of interest in the party’s convention, held to elect its next leader. Despite the Cho Kuk scandal last year and the recent public outrage about skyrocketing housing prices, there’s little indication that the party is attempting to muster its forces and rally disaffected supporters. All I hear are brash comments aimed at the party faithful.

I wish I could say the Democratic Party is moving to meet the masses in the center, the people that Brandt said lean toward the left. If anything, the party is moving the other direction with its failed policies and petulant remarks. Just when the UFP is building a reform-minded and moderate image, the infighting and sniping in the Democratic Party is raising the specter of the “nasty progressives” of the past.

At its convention two days hence, the Democratic Party will be selecting its next leader. Either Lee Nak-yon, Kim Bu-gyeom, or Park Ju-min will take charge of Korea’s ruling party, which controls 180 seats in the National Assembly. This may well be a critical opportunity for the party to pick itself up after its recent pratfalls. It needs to put its nastiness behind it and build a new reputation as progressives who are hard-working, reasonable, and modest.

Back Ki-chul
Back Ki-chul

By Back Ki-chul, editorial writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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